Asking someone about their sexuality

Dear Alice,

I'm a woman. For some reason I keep ending up dating men who are just discovering that they are gay. Is there any way I can ask a question about someone's sexuality without being insulting?

Dear Reader,

The short answer to your question is yes, and no. For some people, sexuality is a salient aspect of their identity, and you may find that discussing sexuality with the important people in your life enables you to build deeper, more intimate connections. For others, being asked about their sexuality may be an uncomfortable situation, especially if they feel that the question-asker would consider “heterosexual” to be the only acceptable answer. Before forging ahead, it might be useful to clarify the definition of sexual orientation, which refers to the gender(s) of people that someone is romantically or sexually attracted to. You’re likely familiar with some of the more common labels — such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual — but new terminology is constantly being created as people seek and create labels that describe the many and varied ways that human beings experience attraction. Sounds pretty broad, right? That's because sexuality could mean something different for everyone, or even change for a single person over the course of their life.

Though you're understandably frustrated by your past experiences dating people with incompatible sexual orientations to your own, your situation likely reflects nothing about you or your personality nor any ill intent from your past partners. The vast majority of people don't set out to deliberately mislead or deceive their romantic partners, and most LGBTQ+ people (just like most heterosexual people) don't seek to date people they know they’re not attracted to. The more probable explanation to your dating woes isn't that your ex-boyfriends hid their sexuality from you in order to hurt you, but rather that they may not have realized that they weren’t straight until midway into your relationship.

Even though media likes to portray LGBTQ+ people as always knowing their sexuality, in reality, most don't begin to question their own sexuality or tell the people in their lives until they are in their teens or twenties. One study found that close to half of gay men (43 percent) were age 20 or older before they first told another person that they were gay. The same study found that bisexual men were the least likely to come out, with 65 percent saying that only a few or none of the important people in their life know they are bisexual. Additionally, sexuality is fluid and might change over a person’s lifetime, so someone’s answer today might be different from their answer in a few months or a few years. Other people may feel comfortable labeling their sexuality in their own head but not feel ready, able, or safe to tell others. Despite the advances in gay rights that have been made in the United States over the last several decades, LGBTQ+ people still regularly face backlash for being open about their identity. Someone may choose to stay “in the closet” for months, years, or even forever in order to avoid potential consequences to their job, schooling, and relationships. Regardless of good intentions, you’re never entitled to know another person’s sexual orientation, but someone choosing to share that information with you likely means that they feel safe with you.

So where does that leave you, dear Reader? Well, it’s up to you whether you want to ask potential dates about their sexuality. While asking sensitive questions — whether about identity, money, politics, or drug use — may feel intimidating, studies show that many people don’t mind being asked such questions and don't perceive them to be as offensive as the asker often believes. A crucial caveat, however, is the context and intent of the question-asker. Most people are more likely to be open and willing to discuss sensitive topics when they feel that they won’t be judged or penalized for their response. Before you ask away, it may be useful to do some reflection of your own about your goals for this conversation:

  • Are you wanting to ask because you want to learn about a topic that might feel central to your date’s self-identity?
  • Are you open to hearing any possible response, or would you react negatively towards some possible answers?
  • Would you assume that someone who is bisexual would ultimately end up dumping you for a man?
  • Are you viewing the other person — even subconsciously — as someone who is possibly withholding information that could harm you?
  • Are you asking to assuage your own insecurities or fears?

If you do decide to ask someone about their sexuality, you’re most likely to have a positive interaction that furthers your relationship if you’re able to keep the conversation open and nonjudgmental. You may wish to lead with open-ended questions, avoid accusatory language, and postpone the conversation if you’re feeling angry, frustrated, or insecure. When you're ready to ask your date about their sexuality, your respect for them will go a long way. 

Reader, it also sounds like you may be experiencing some feelings of shame, anger, or insecurity when thinking about your prior relationships. You may even be wondering if something is wrong with you that causes your partners to “turn gay” after being with you. While those feeling are certainly valid, they may not be grounded in reality, and it may be helpful to reframe your thinking about your past relationships. A healthy relationship will make space for the people in it to learn and grow as people, both separately and together, over time — and while this growth is a positive part of interpersonal relationships, it may also cause or uncover incompatibilities. Maybe the partners have different goals around marriage or raising children. Maybe they spend and save money at incompatible rates. Maybe one person wants to move to another country while another wants to live in the same town as their parents. Maybe someone explores their sexuality and decides to date different people. Regardless of the specifics, sometimes incompatibilities can be worked through, and sometimes the healthiest outcome is to break up. As much as you might wish the opposite, it’s impossible to perfectly screen potential dates to prevent incompatibilities from arising in the future, and it’s never anyone’s fault for growing in an unexpected direction.

If you're still concerned about meeting compatible partners, it might be worthwhile to explore other ways to meet dates that allow you to assess potential compatibility on key issues early on, such as online dating. About 30 percent of adults in the U.S. have used online dating sites, and the rates are even higher among younger generations, with about half of people between the ages of 18 to 29 having ever used a dating site or app. Many online dating profiles allow users to disclose common points of in/compatibility, such as gender, sexual orientation, ideal relationship length or commitment level, current kids or desire for them in the future, language preference, and education level. While some folks do express fears about the safety of online dating sites, there are again wide variations across different demographics, with younger people and those with higher levels of education being far less likely to report feeling unsafe while using dating apps. In general, it’s wise to take some precautions whenever you’re meeting a stranger for the first time (such as telling a trusted friend where you’re going), regardless of whether you first made contact with that stranger online or in-person.

At the end of the day, if your partner trusts you enough to share their sexual orientation with you, you should feel proud that they find you to be a caring and open person. And if you meet someone great who happens to be gay, perhaps a phenomenal friendship is in the cards for you. Wishing you luck on your journey to love! 

Last updated Sep 30, 2022
Originally published Sep 25, 1998

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